What Day is the Sabbath?

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Not far from where I live, there is a well-known car dealership that does something unusual by industry standards: they close every Sunday. On most of their radio commercials, they finish with a catchy tag line that says, “Closed Sundays, ‘cause it’s the right thing to do!” While they don’t directly say it, the obvious implication is that they are a Christian-run company that thinks it best to give their employees that day off every week. While most of us are aware of certain other companies that follow suit on this practice (like Chick Fil A and Hobby Lobby), this illustrates something very important. Though the “resting” part of things has mostly gone by the wayside, worshipping on Sunday is as much a Christian tradition as anything we could imagine; it is most definitely the norm.

For nearly two millennia, believers have been meeting to worship the Lord on what has been deemed by most as a sacred day. Sunday is believed to be the day that Jesus rose from the dead, and so it represents something of a “Christian Sabbath” for the church. But notice that I said for nearly two millennia, and that it has been deemed to be a sacred day. The truth of the matter is that many of the earliest Christians did not worship on the first day of the week, and those who established that Sunday should be the new Sabbath arrived on the scene after Christ and the apostles.

While those statements may appear to be provocative, it is much less controversial to say that Jesus and the apostles kept the Jewish Sabbath—the seventh day—and not Sunday. Of course they kept such a custom; they were all Jews! We are told that Jesus’ routine was to worship on the Sabbath (Lk. 4:16). Acts tells us that Paul also did so, with one purpose being to reveal Christ to his fellow Jews (17:2). Acts further reveals that others in the Christian community were meeting on the Sabbath, with Luke, Paul, Silas and Timothy joining them on at least one occasion: “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled” (Acts 16:13).

We do not have a biblical record of the other apostles doing so after Christ had departed, but they most certainly did during his ministry. There is no biblical basis for believing that they traded in the seventh day for the first, so it stands to reason they continued to meet on the Jewish Sabbath.

Not only is the Bible devoid of any suggestion that the apostles regularly worshipped on Sunday—even after the resurrection of their Rabbi and Lord—it also lacks any indication that Gentiles (non-Jews) were expected to do so. That’s right: there is not a single verse of Scripture stating that the Sabbath had become obsolete, that it had been replaced, or that Sunday should be recognized as an official—much less the official—day of worship.

To be sure, there are examples that some point to in order to prove otherwise. Jesus’ statement that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” is just such a verse (Mk. 2:27). However, this has nothing to do with eliminating the Sabbath. Rather, it was about keeping it the right way. Many of the Pharisees of that time had turned the Sabbath into a day of misery. This included adding numerous restrictions that were never commanded by God.[1] Jesus’ response was an affirmation that the Sabbath was made as a day of rest rather than a day involving more work than the others!

1 Corinthians 16:2 is also referenced as proof that Sunday worship had replaced the Sabbath. This was a command to personally set aside items (“put by himself,” literally) for the overall church collection. It says nothing about passing around a tithe dish—or anything of the sort—nor does it suggest that everyone would even be assembled together for worship.

Finally, Revelation 1:10 is occasionally mentioned, because it talks about being “in the Spirit” on the “Lord’s day.” Though some would later come to refer to the “Lord’s Day” as the first day of the week, there is no indication that the author intended this. The expression is not used elsewhere in the NT but is virtually paralleled in the OT. There, however, it refers not to Sunday but to the Sabbath (Is. 58:13). Still others look at the “Lord’s day” of Revelation 1:10 and see a reference to the time of the Lord’s visitation and judgment, which is elsewhere called the “day of the Lord” (Jl. 1:15, for example). Whatever the case, it is simply unclear what was really intended in this verse.

This is obviously a small selection of passages to choose from. Even if any of them provided evidence that Sunday had replaced the Sabbath, we would not have a lot to go on. This would leave us with an odd phenomenon, to say the least. The Sabbath was the most holy day of the week for the Jewish people for hundreds of years. They were prohibited from both working and making others work, and from carrying on with “business as usual” every time it rolled around each week. From sunset Friday evening to sunset Saturday evening—neither of these names for the days of the week existed at that time, mind you—the Jewish people turned off their normal lives and dedicated their every action to God. At least, that was the command.

With this in mind, it seems almost incomprehensible that the Sabbath would be altered in some way without Jesus and the apostles making it abundantly clear. After all, the Son of God was no doubt involved in giving the Israelites the commandments long before becoming incarnate in the man Jesus. He knew, above everyone else, how important the Sabbath was in the Jewish faith.

Before moving on to other matters, one more thing should be mentioned. Though it is celebrated that Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday morning, that is not entirely correct. Though the Gospels are clear that the tomb was empty when his followers arrived near daybreak on the first day of the week (Lk. 24:1-3), the reality is that Jesus rose before that. In fact—and according to how we reckon time—he could have risen at almost any point between sundown Saturday and first light on Sunday. The Jewish Sabbath would have ended near dark on Saturday, so Jesus would have rested in the tomb for parts of the three required days described in Scripture (Mt. 12:40). Biblical scholar, Ben Witherington III, explained the problem with pressing a literal three-day period (24 hours each) into this issue:

“The problem with this sort of modern reasoning is that it assumes the Gospel writers intended always to write with precision on this matter. In fact the phrase ‘after three days’ in the New Testament can simply mean ‘after a while’ or ‘after a few days’ without any clear specificity beyond suggesting several days, in this case parts of three days, would be involved.”[2]

With all this in mind, it may be more historically accurate to say that Jesus conquered death on Saturday night. For obvious reasons, I don’t see many churches holding late night services! While this is not likely to change anyone’s opinion on the matter one way or the other, it is certainly worth bearing in mind.

If there is no command within the NT that eliminated the Sabbath—much less a command to transfer it to Sunday—when and how did this change take place? The first part is easier to answer, though neither are simple issues. The short answer to when the Sabbath stopped being kept and was officially “replaced” by Sunday worship is that the Roman Emperor Constantine decreed the change. On March 7th, 321 A.D., “Constantine the Great” made a proclamation that made Sunday the official Roman day of rest.[3] As both the Emperor of Rome and the great patron of the Roman “Catholic” Church, this had a profound impact on the Christians living in Rome.

The change had several significant implications. It meant that merchants would not be permitted to trade, that most administrative establishments would have to close, and that farmers alone were permitted to work (in recognition that certain farm activities were impossible to set aside).[4] Since Sunday—which was then connected to the Sun God, Sol Invictus—had already been a day of celebration and thanks within Rome, it seemed like a natural fit to replace the Jewish day of rest.[5] With the tremendous power wielded by the Roman Empire, this legal decree came to dominate much of the Christian world. In fact, it has persisted within the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and most Protestant denominations ever since.

However, it is not quite that simple. Many will assert that the practice of keeping Sunday sacred was, by that time, a longstanding tradition. Of course, if that were indeed the case, why did Constantine need to make the decree to begin with? You don’t make an imperial decree for something that is already the standard practice. However, it is true that Christians in certain areas had adopted this belief well before that time. The second century apologist, Justin Martyr, once referenced this custom:

“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits . . . Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.”[6]

There were many other Christian voices from the first few centuries of the church who left similar records, Tertullian and Ignatius being a couple prominent figures. However, we also know that believers in other areas of the world continued to keep the Sabbath, because those in Rome and Alexandria found it strange that others were still following what they believed to be a Jewish custom.[7] In fact, we have an extensive record showing that large numbers of Christians outside of Rome continued to observe the Sabbath until sometime in the 5th century.[8]

Further still, we also know that some Christians—as early as the first century—had ceased worshipping on the Sabbath out of necessity. In a sense, Christians had been forced out of various synagogues because of their obvious differences in beliefs. Specifically, Christians were often unwelcome because they did not adhere to the laws given under the old covenant, but their acceptance of Christ as Messiah was certainly a major problem as well. This predicament was no doubt part of why the Council of Laodicea (364 A.D.) much later equated Sabbath keeping with “Judaizing,” or unnecessarily abiding by Jewish customs:

“Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday (Sabbath), but shall work on that Day: but the Lord’s Day, they shall especially honour; and as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ.”[9]

While smaller groups may have begun worshipping on Sunday towards the end of the first century, the practice was by no stretch ubiquitous within the church. Early on, Christians ceased official worship on the Sabbath but did not cease to recognize the day altogether.

Now, the question of how this change became official and gained overwhelming popularity within the church is an entirely different matter. It certainly did involve both the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues and Constantine’s decree. However, something much larger was at work. With Constantine converting (debatably) to Christianity and the faith eventually becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, history would be forever changed. In short, the Roman Empire controlled most of the known world and came to be the dominant influence in Christian thinking.

Some of the most influential councils in church history—like the First Councils of Nicea and Constantinople—occurred under Roman supervision. Naturally, the most prominent theologians of the area were present at these councils and were Roman citizens. Doctrine was confirmed, and even the Bible itself was ratified—or “canonized”—into its official form during these councils. Clearly, not everything that occurred during that time was corrupt or counter to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles; many important things were accomplished during this time, and God certainly worked through the Roman emperors and their underlings in a variety of ways.

Of course, so might have Satan. It was also during this time that the very writings they officially canonized were often turned on their heads and warped into something nearly unrecognizable.[10] The point is, we could easily take one of two positions—both of which could even be false—on the matter. The first would be to believe that God worked things out so that Sunday came to replace the Jewish Sabbath out of reverence for Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The second would be to view Sunday as a counterfeit: an unauthorized change that had its crooked origins in the earliest times of church history.

Whichever view you are prone to adopt, a case can be made in both directions.

So, what does this mean for those of us living in the 21st century? Should we keep the Sabbath, like Jesus and the apostles? Should we hold Sunday to be sacred, as many Christians began to do after the time recorded in the NT? I would like to offer a few thoughts on these questions. The first will deeply bother some readers but is true with regards to the what Bible tells us. The Sabbath was never abolished by any command given by Jesus, the apostles, or anyone else with the authority to do so. As prototypical Jewish believers, these figures worshipped on the Sabbath and almost certainly kept the day holy in every necessary way. None of them abandoned the fourth commandment or began worshipping on Sunday, and they certainly didn’t tell anyone else to do so.

As far as the Bible is concerned, the Sabbath never resigned or passed the baton to Sunday. 

That must mean that we should still be worshipping on the seventh day, and ceasing our labor between Friday evening and Saturday evening, right? There was a time that I would have said yes to both parts. In fact, I tried to persuade others of the necessity of doing so. However, further study and personal experience led me away from this practice. Just as it had for many of the Jews living at (or before) Jesus’ time, attempting to keep the Sabbath “holy” became an onerous burden for me. I missed work, missed events with friends and family, and had essentially refined myself to house arrest between Friday evening and Saturday evening. I could not work, make others work, or enjoy the usual pleasures of a normal day; this would have made the Sabbath mundane and ordinary, if not even profane.

Many have experienced these difficulties, and some find it impossible to get this time off from their jobs on a weekly basis. By the end of my Sabbath keeping days, I came to anxiously await its departure each week. This was precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to be about. Try as I might, I could never live up to my perceived expectations for the Sabbath. More importantly, I could never keep the day holy in the biblical sense.

But that leads to a significant point. In truth, it was the lack of a single NT command to observe the seventh day that reinforced my decision. While the Sabbath was not abrogated by Christ or the apostles, there is something equally important to realize: the Sabbath was never given to the Gentile converts as a required observance. Going back to the formal institution of the Sabbath, it was often mentioned that the practice was specifically given to Israel: “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever . . .” (Ex. 31:16).

This is crucial information, particularly when we fast-forward to the era described within the NT. For the most part, the Gentiles—those who were not ethnically or religiously Jewish—of the day knew very little about Jewish laws and customs. Jewish law and the expectations of the old covenant were extremely complex realities, particularly for those who lived outside of that community. When the apostles (especially Paul) tried to relay the significance of Christ’s coming to the Gentiles, they took great pains not to overload them with Jewish verbiage or unfamiliar concepts. This is clearly demonstrated by the decision of the first church council. After much debate, James (Jesus’ half-brother) addressed the group with a verdict:

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (15:19-21).

No, this is not the only set of commands that Gentile Christians were (or are) expected to keep. However, this shows the delicate situation that James and the apostles—who were steeped in Jewish customs—found themselves in. It would have been incredibly easy to suffocate new believers with a yoke that they could never have carried (15:10). It is interesting to note that James even mentioned the Sabbath in his verdict, but not as one of the commands given to the Gentiles.

There are two other passages of Scripture that speak directly to this point. The first is Romans 14, and it addresses the friction that existed between Jewish Christians and Gentile converts. The debate between these two groups concerning the Mosaic Law–an immense number of laws given to Israel through Moses–was both fierce and divisive [11]. Among the matters that came up was whether Christians need to keep “special days,” such as the festival days (which were also called “sabbaths”). Paul addressed the friction, giving the believers in Rome this message: “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (14:5). Once more, Witherington succinctly summarized how the weekly Sabbath was involved:

“Paul does not specifically mention sabbaths here, but presumably this is because he wants to include the notion of any and all special days, including festival days and the Day of Atonement as well as sabbaths (cf. Gal 4.10; Col. 2.16).”[12]

As I will discuss momentarily, the Gentile Christians would almost certainly have understood these instructions as including the weekly Sabbath. The matter of observing special days also came up in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which dealt with an abundance of theological problems (collectively called the “Colossian Heresy”). Apparently, one of these heresies involved the belief that Christians must abide by certain philosophical principles, including holding certain days as sacred. Paul cleared this issue up, saying:

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—these things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (2:16-17).

Just as he had told the believers in Rome, Paul strongly discouraged the Colossians against being intimidated into observing certain days or regarding those who do as being superior.

Some have posited that in saying “Sabbath day” Paul was talking about the yearly festivals—like the day of Pentecost or the Feast of Tabernacles—and not the weekly day of worship. That seems rather unlikely, mainly because Paul specifically mentioned festivals as a separate issue. Moreover, this interpretation implies that the Gentile Christians clearly understood the difference: that they would have automatically perceived that Paul was talking about the festivals and not the seventh day of each week. Almost as a matter of certainty, most of the Gentiles would not have possessed that kind of knowledge about the OT or the Mosaic Law.

Instead, the word “Sabbath”—being used in any capacity—would most naturally have been understood as the weekly day of worship. This hits on the vital part of what is said in both Romans 14 and Colossians 2. In discussing the entire matter of festivals, Sabbath days, and the importance of special days in general, Paul never once delineated between the weekly Sabbath and any other day. He never told them to make sure they still worshipped and rested on the seventh day of each week, even though he did tell them not to worry about regarding other days as sacred.

By not making a clear distinction, the Gentile Christians almost certainly would have lumped the weekly Sabbath into the mix.

At best, Paul was giving them no reason to think otherwise. It is highly unlikely that Paul would have acted so lax about the matter if he still wanted them to observe the weekly Sabbath. Personally, I find it to be unthinkable that he would have done so.

From what we can glean from the NT, the Gentiles were never instructed to keep the Sabbath as a mandatory practice. It simply cannot be responsibly deduced from what we are given in Scripture.

This just leaves one important question: if Christians are not required to observe the Sabbath, should we be worshipping on Sunday? Clearly, I have already shown that Sunday worship is nowhere commanded in Scripture. Though it is not required, neither is it wrong to do so. I realize some would disagree with that,[13] but no day of the week—including either Saturday or Sunday—was explicitly given as a necessary religious observance under the new covenant. It is good that we meet on a consistent basis (Acts 2:46), and Sunday is a natural fit for many within our various societies.

With that being said—and please keep this in mind—no one should feel especially pious because they “kept Sunday sacred” or look down upon others for not doing so. Sunday is not sacred within the Bible, and I do not believe that God will take issue with those who did not celebrate it as such. Likewise, those who continue to keep the Sabbath should not look down on those who do not. Worship is pleasing to God whenever, wherever, and by whomever, it comes. While this at least provides my personal view on the matter, it is up to each of us to make our own decisions. Here, we can take Paul’s instructions to the believers in Rome that each person needs to resolve this for themselves (14:5).

Whatever you decide, just be sure to follow another of Paul’s commands: “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (14:13).

 

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon:

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

Footnotes:

[1] For a couple examples, no one was permitted to walk more than about 3,000 feet (⅝ of a mile) from their home (Acts 1:12) or even heal someone in desperate need (Lk. 13:10-17).

[2] See Witherington’s article, “It’s About Time—Easter Time.”

[3] See Schaff’s, History of the Christian Church (Volume), 380.

[4] See the article, “Constantine Decrees ‘Sun-Day’ as Day of Rest.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] See “1 Apol. LXVII in Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.”

[7] “The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria.” Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book 7 (ch. 19). This source also adds that cities and towns in Egypt were meeting on Sabbath evenings.

[8] I refer you to two sources on this: Socrates, “Ecclesiastical History,” (Book 7, chap.19) and Lyman Coleman’s, “Ancient Christianity Exemplified,” (ch. 26, sec. 2, p. 527).

[9] See Charles Joseph Hefele’s, A History of the Church Councils from 326 to 429: Volume 2, 316.

[10] In my book Spiritual Things, I discuss many areas where standard Christian teachings radically differ from what the Bible says on those issues. See pages 84-90 especially. These issues include what happens at death, the embodiment of heavenly beings, and others.

[11] The belief that Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah was obviously extremely divisive. However, the role that the Mosaic Law should play in believer’s lives was perhaps even more difficult to reconcile. These two factors were the primary reasons why Christians were expelled from the synagogues, but were not the only reasons.

[12] Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 336.

[13] The Seventh-Day Adventists, with whom I am very well acquainted, believe that Sunday worship and the eradication of the Sabbath are both of satanic origin. I do sympathize with this perspective, if nothing else because Sunday was not instituted by God but by man. However, I differ on the ramifications of observing Sunday. To some within the denomination, Sunday worship is even considered to be the “mark of the beast” that will condemn individuals at the end times.

Author: Brian M. Rossiter

I am a Christian teacher, author, and lecturer. Most importantly, I am a truth-seeker. My research has led me to both believe in and defend the veracity of the Bible, evaluating my own personal views in light of its teachings along the way. In addition to my blogs, I have written several books: "The Death Myth," "Mind Over Matter: the Necessity of Metaphysics in a Material World," "God Made the Aliens," and most recently, "Spiritual Things." My hope in these endeavors is to give skeptics reasons to believe, to strengthen the faith of those who already do, and to challenge each of us to truly evaluate our own worldviews.

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